The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 16, 2014

Presenting your research? Try telling a story.

June 16, 2014

One of the hot buzzwords in data visualization these days is “storytelling”: telling stories with data, using visualization to help tell stories,…stories, stories, stories. But no one, it seems, has really defined the term. A number of great blog posts recently (for example, here, here, here, here, and here) have weighed in on what storytelling means, as has a recent episode of the Data Stories podcast, but the debate continues. (In a separate blog post, I expressed my disagreement with part of that conversation).

One reason I find the storytelling debate so fascinating is that from an economist’s—that is, my—perspective, stories find their way into economic research in odd ways. In one way, many economists use stories to help develop their research. Here’s one my coauthors and I have been telling lately: “A 62-year-old goes to the Social Security office to claim his retirement benefits. The Social Security officer says, ‘How’s your back feeling? Looks like you’re wincing a little bit. Maybe you should apply for disability benefits.’ And so the person applies for both retirement and disability benefits and gets awarded disability benefits instead of retirement benefits. This has implications for the finances of both programs.”

Stories like this one can help set up a research project and put it in terms that we, as researchers, can relate to. If the story is a stretch or unrealistic, it may mean the research has a fundamental flaw. Much of economics, after all, is about describing human behavior, and if we can’t describe that behavior (be it rational or not; a subject for another time), then perhaps the research or approach is flawed.

But I rarely see economists present their research—either in written or oral form—by using stories. Aside from some qualitative research, you rarely see a research article that uses individual stories to motivate or support the research hypothesis. Journal articles, I’m afraid, are almost completely devoid of the human touch, as if both the writer and the data the writer used have nothing to do with people.

I recently watched a colleague practice her presentation (side note: I was really happy she decided to practice her talk—it’s something I highly advocate and something from which everyone can benefit). The presentation followed the basic outline we’ve all seen time and again: Introduction, Data and Methods, Results, Conclusion. It included lots of bullet points, lots of text, and, at best, a convoluted take-home message (another side note: in future posts, I’ll write about strategies researchers can use to improve their presentations).

In the discussion that followed, one of the researchers on the team told a story about a site visit where they interviewed a family about their experience with the welfare system. Why not use this story and stories like it to motivate the presentation? The audience will connect with this family, better understand (well, at least appreciate) the challenges they face, and be more invested in how research might help families like this one better interact with the welfare system.

Researchers: Motivate your writing and your presentations by telling stories about real people and real problems or even sharing your own experiences. Then link those stories to your research and—importantly—how your research can help address these challenges.

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Comments

One of the most valuable aspects of Jane's Walks - in Chicago and elsewhere - is that they provide the opportunity for people to see and hear other peoples' real stories and real problems and have a more intimate view of other peoples' experiences. And if that visceral understanding leads to different avenues of research, so much the better.

i couldn't agree more with the comments mentioned above. as a researcher what drives us is the observations or experiences we come across in our day-to-day life. sometimes there remains a wide gap between what we do and what it really is in real life. as a researcher and an instructor myself i always try to connect the theory i learn and teach in class with what i observe around me. such an approach i believe is all the more important if you have to draw policy conclusions.

Excellent point about using stories to frame your research. I strongly suspect this is why the post-disaster studies (e.g. post-Tsunami, post-Katrina) are often the ones I find most compelling at professional conferences. There may be dozens of presentations on migration patterns, but the ones investigating migration-after-disaster have a built-in storyline, while migration differentials by rarely do.